Traumatised mums say their sons who refuse to fight for Kremlin held in torture pits

Published by The Mail on Sunday (31st July, 2022)

MAKSIM Kochetkov is being held captive in a penal colony 6,000 miles from his home on an island near Japan – one of the rising number of Russian troops who are prisoners of a war they do not wish to fight.

The 20-year-old is being punished for defying Vladimir Putin’s order to attack Ukraine – like thousands more Russian soldiers, often recruited from outlying and poorer parts of Russia.

His plight underscores the claim by defence officials in the United States last week that there are ‘increased signs of discipline and morale problems in the Russian army’.

This has been confirmed by Russian media reports – including one that traced 1,793 soldiers such as Maksim refusing to fight.

It found many are being held by Kremlin-linked mercenaries in crammed basements and ‘torture pits’ in Luhansk, a region that broke away from Ukraine in 2014 after being seized by pro-Moscow separatists.

Russian officials, struggling to replenish battle lines five months into their invasion, try to bully the refuseniks into ripping up their resignation letters and return to the frontline.

Verstka, an independent Russian news outlet, found at least 234 men being held in a detention centre in the town of Bryanka.

One man said his son had been held in a basement for two weeks with 33 others. A woman said her son was rounded up on July 12 and locked underground without food, water or electricity. Another father talked of ‘torture pits’.

Russian military law allows soldiers to refuse to fight – but human rights activists say commanders faced with a lack of reinforcements often ignore their demands or try to intimidate them into staying rather than agreeing to let them return home.

One soldier, among a group of 200 men filing requests not to fight, said some had reached home but many others were sent into Bryanka’s basements or forced back to the frontline. ‘Maybe I will be able to leave without sitting in the pit,’ he said.

Such refuseniks add to the Kremlin’s headaches as Putin struggles to replenish military units that are exhausted and suffering heavy losses along a 300-mile frontline stretching from near Kharkiv in north-east Ukraine to Kherson – now facing a Kyiv-led counter-attack – in the south.

‘The problem is simple: Russia needs soldiers to hold a very long line and occupy a population that doesn’t want to live under their rule but they have a relatively small army,’ said Phillips O’Brien, Professor of Strategic Studies at St Andrews University.

‘If they don’t try to mobilise, the friction between the way they are fighting and their need for soldiers will end up causing a major problem for them.’

More than 75,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the five-month war, according to US intelligence – almost matching the size of the British Army – and frustrating their efforts to advance in the eastern Donbas region.

In late March, Russia admitted 1,351 deaths but has since stayed silent on casualty rates – although many of those whose deaths have been confirmed by other sources have come from poorer parts of the country and were recruited from ethnic minorities.

MI6 chief Richard Moore said last week that the Kremlin would ‘increasingly find it difficult to find manpower and materiel over the next few weeks’ and that Russia was ‘about to run out of steam’.

He added that Putin’s soldiers were not ‘middle-class kids’ from Moscow: ‘These are poor kids from rural parts of Russia, they’re from blue-collar towns in Siberia, disproportionately from ethnic minorities – these are cannon fodder.’

Artyom Gorshenin was recruited from Abkhazia, an occupied part of Georgia, and crossed into Ukraine with his engineering unit on the first day of invasion. Since April, the 22-year-old has been demanding release from military service.

Another 81 soldiers in his unit sent similar letters but were ignored. ‘The guys waited and then they got together, handed over their weapons and left the unit,’ said his mother Fatima.

They were told they would be taken back to Abkhazia. Instead, 120 soldiers were flown to the detention centre in Bryanka, divided into groups of 20 and locked in basements guarded by mercenaries, thought to be from the sinister Wagner group (a private militia group linked to the Kremlin). Fatima lost touch with her son earlier this month.

Many contracted soldiers were told before the invasion that they were going on drills near the border – only to find themselves in a savage war against a resourceful nation fighting for its survival and supplied with increasingly-sophisticated Western weaponry.

Reports of some Russians refusing to fight began to emerge within weeks. In March, 300 men from a unit based in Dagestan laid down their weapons and left Ukraine. Another 150 from a tank battalion based in Siberia quit in June. Mothers of the men returning in March said that their sons had not been given sufficient food or uniforms, returning with frostbitten limbs and having had to ‘cut off the blackened meat’ from their bodies.

Sergey Bokov, 23, quit the army one month into the war after being dismayed by their lack of equipment. ‘Our commanders didn’t even argue with us because we weren’t the first ones to leave,’ he told the BBC’s Russian Service.

Complaints about inadequate supplies, low morale and poor planning emerged in phone conversations alleged to be between Russian soldiers and their families that were intercepted and shared by the Ukrainian security services.

Kyiv exploited this low morale – along with emerging anger over atrocities – to integrate a Freedom of Russia Legion, formed by anti-Putin dissidents, into its armed forces, which defence officials claimed in April had been set up with more than 100 recruits.

Now families of Russian soldiers are using social media and messaging groups to share information as they search for missing sons and husbands – a move that will undoubtedly alarm Putin, given how mothers successfully stirred opposition against previous wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The father of one soldier said his son had been promised a holiday after three months and the chance to return home – but instead the young soldier had been held in detention for more than a month after asking to leave,.

Such captives were detained in terrible conditions in ‘some sorts of pits’ with ‘torture and the like’, he said. Then they were accused of cowardice and betraying their motherland during intimidating discussions with a psychologist.

Despite this, his son and other soldiers held in Bryanka still refused to return to the frontline. ‘They no longer want to be covered up to their necks in the blood of their friends and officers,’ said the man.

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